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President Obama Will Bring a Mixed Nuclear Message to Hiroshima

May 10, 2016

President Obama will end his Presidency pretty much the same way he began it: with a call to the world to rid itself of nuclear arms—this time at Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic weapon used in war.

Too bad he did so little to reach that goal during the intervening seven years. Instead of bequeathing a smarter nuclear arsenal to his successor, he has launched the most-costly upgrade to the U.S. nuclear arsenal ever. By embracing the wholesale replacement of the nuclear triad—the bombers, submarines and land-based missiles that deliver warheads—Obama's atomic blueprint will cost an estimated $348 billion over the coming decade.

Think of it as Cold War 2.0.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act,” he told an audience in Prague on April 5, 2009. “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Six months later, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Obama its annual peace prize, saying it had “attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Seven years later, the song remains the same. The White House announced Tuesday that Obama will visit Hiroshima on May 27 at the end of the G-7 economic summit, making him the first sitting President to visit Hiroshima (ex-president Jimmy Carter visited in 1984). A U.S. B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city on Aug. 6, 1945, killing up to 146,000 people; a second nuclear weapons destroyed Nagasaki three days later, killing up to 80,000 and forcing Japan's surrender.

Obama's visit will come 2,610 days after his Prague speech. National security spokesman Ben Rhodes said the Japanese visit will represent Obama’s “personal commitment” to “a world without nuclear weapons.”

But commitments aren’t actions. “Of all post-Cold War presidents the Obama Administration has reduced the warhead stockpile the least,” says Hans Kristensen, who runs the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists. “He has also presided over the most ambitious nuclear modernization effort since the Cold War by funding nuclear forces at record levels and committing the United States to a very broad modernization of the entire nuclear arsenal and its support facilities.”

The trouble with a U.S. nuclear arsenal on auto-pilot isn’t only that it increases the chances that something could go wrong, but that it denies Washington the bully pulpit Obama plainly craves but hasn’t earned. That, in turn, contributes to the seepage of nuclear weapons around the globe (not that states like Iran and North Korea would curb their ambitions).

True, the push to reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal has stumbled amid Republican opposition and as Russia’s Vladimir Putin has grown more aggressive (although the utility of nuclear weapons to deter him is dubious). “Obama has made a stronger rhetorical commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament than any recent president,” says Miles Pomper, a nuclear-weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “But in part because of the Republican Congress and Vladimir Putin's return to power, his results have not differed that much from his predecessors.” The 2010 New START pact between the U.S. and Russia calls for a 28% cut in deployed U.S. nuclear weapons by 2018, but doesn’t require scrapping a single one.

Some former top U.S. officials have called for dramatic cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including scrapping the triad’s ICBM leg. “Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg,” former defense secretary William Perry told TIME. “Deterrence is deterrence, and you can achieve it with an asymmetrical force, and you can achieve it with fewer numbers.”

But keeping all three legs of the triad—and modernizing them, to boot—was the deal Obama struck with senators to win their votes for ratification of that New START treaty with Russia.

And that all-American deal has spawned a new problem: the military says it doesn’t have the money to buy the new missiles, bombers and submarines, even under projected future annual budgets that top the Cold War average.

The Navy’s congressional allies have suggested creating a “deterrence fund” that would pay for the service's new fleet of missile-carrying “boomer” subs, separate and apart from its ship-building account. “I like what the fund stands for,” Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, told Congress in March. “This is a national program of absolutely top priority for national security.”

The Air Force got the hint. “If that is a strategic deterrence fund, which would help or benefit one leg of the triad, I would ask for consideration that all the legs of the triad be included in such an approach,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James said in March (the Air Force, of course, is the home of the triad’s other two legs).

So there you have it: a President who has repeatedly decried the presence of nuclear weapons has launched a nuclear-weapons buying spree that his military services say they cannot afford. The Japanese are bound to be impressed.

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